Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola

  by Burnell F Eckardt Jr
  in collaboration with the editorial staff

          There’s been plenty of well-founded worry about the Ebola virus these days. As I write this, we’re already tracking the possibilities of its spread through two Dallas nurses who contracted the disease from the Liberian man who came here and has died. One of those nurses took a flight to and from Cleveland, and that plane has been to Florida. Some schools have closed as precautions. Who knows where this can go? By the time you read this it may have been stanched, or it may have become epidemic, official reassurances to the contrary notwithstanding.
            One cannot help but think of the plagues of the Middle Ages to find points of comparison, most especially the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century in which over a third of all Europeans died. But we can also make a more recent comparison. Having just recently updated the chronicles of St. Paul’s in Kewanee, I happen to be somewhat versed in the ease with which a plague can suddenly sweep across even a nation that has the advantage of knowing more than medieval folk did about how disease is spread.
            In 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic reached the shores of America, probably through the U.S. Government War Exhibition in Chicago, which opened in September of that year and brought a quarter of a million visitors. Chicago was the nation’s largest rail hub at the time.   As was the case across Illinois, Kewanee’s first announced victims were servicemen who were still away from home, but soon the ravages of the disease were felt by families here and across the nation.  By the end of October, over 40,000 new cases were reported in Chicago in one week alone. In the same month Kewanee noted its first local death of an influenza victim.
            Articles appearing in the Kewanee Star Courier appear to have been written with the aim of quelling people’s fears.  Weekly stories would announce the reported decline of new cases, or of good news on the flu front.  An often-reprinted article entitled “Spanish Influenza—What It Is and How It Should Be Treated,” confidently averred that it is “nothing new . . . simply the old ‘grippe’” of 1889-90, and insisted that there was “no occasion for panic.”  When the war ended in November, the newspaper declared that the city received the news with “unbridled joy.”   At year’s end a half-page artist’s sketch chronicled the year’s mostly significant events, and most of it was devoted to excitement about the war’s drawing to a close, while allowing only a small corner to note that “Uncle Sam got the flu.”
            But obituaries didn’t lie, and since the middle of October there had been a steady stream of reports of new local victims who had died of “the flu and pneumonia.” And since it was customary in those days to print obituaries on the front page of the paper, their daily appearance seemed almost to mock the newspaper’s valiant if pitiful attempts to maintain a bright outlook.
            One of the particularly odious facets of a plague—and this pandemic certainly qualified as a plague—is that spiritual care became difficult to obtain in a time when it was most sorely needed.  The city of Kewanee closed all its public places, and all the local churches had agreed to cooperate.  By the year’s end they had all ceased to conduct services, with the sole exception of the funerals, which of necessity were held away from the church, and at which attendance was kept to an absolute minimum. St. Paul’s closed its doors with an announcement that arrangements could be made with the pastor for private catechetical instruction.   The church stayed closed for thirteen weeks.
Usually the victims of influenza would die within a single week of their contraction of the disease.  Delirium was not uncommon.  People everywhere were getting sick.  The city of Chicago ran out of hearses.  Morgues were stacked to the ceiling with bodies.
The pandemic didn’t actually abate until the late spring and summer of 1919.  Researchers estimate that between 30 and 50 million people died worldwide, with an estimated 675,000 Americans being among the dead.
St. Paul’s was able to open its doors sometime early in 1919, though people were still dying.  In one week alone during that period there were five funerals.  The official church record puts the number of deaths from influenza at 11.  It took until sometime in the year 1920 for the horrendous chapter of the influenza plague to come, thankfully, to an end, and, as was the case in all of mankind’s previous plagues, an awareness began to settle in that it was not yet the end of the world.
So today we are facing the threat of Ebola. We have received word that some of our Liberian brothers have questions about our communion practice and we realize these questions might soon afflict us as well. What of the common cup? What of the reliquae (leftover elements)? Should this disease take on the marks of an actual pandemic among us, we may once again be in need of extraordinary measures, and history can guide us. Under extraordinary circumstances, it might be proper for churches to take extraordinary measures, to quell fears where possible. There will surely be a temptation to attempt a sterile distribution of the Lord's Supper. The pastor should wash his hands thoroughly before the Service, but extra care might be taken and public awareness of this precaution could be raised. Hand-shaking could be forbidden. And certainly, the idea that glass individual cups could be used, perhaps with vodka dampened purificators or other precautions, will be brought up as more sanitary than the chalice.
The editors have considered all these things, and it seems to us all that such precautions are really no guarantee of complete sterility and that our fathers felt that the best course was not to change the mode of distribution but to abstain from public communion services; and we think that if we do face an actual pandemic of plague proportions, this would still be the best and safest course. Pastoral care would have to be handled mostly in a private way and may even require at times, if the communicant is quarantined or some such thing, the use of rubber gloves and a face mask by the celebrant. Unless the pandemic shuts down the power grid and the internet, we will enjoy ways of preaching to and catechizing our people that our fathers did not have. If things do get out of hand, it might become necessary, once again, to close our churches altogether for awhile and rely solely on individualized pastoral care and electronic media.

We do have plenty of reason, however, even from a medical point of view, to be hopeful that no such thing will befall us in these days. It is certainly true that the Lord will provide and that He might well deliver us to Himself through Ebola or some other horrific disease. We trust, without flinching, that if the Lord deliver us to that fate through the Chalice or the Services of the Church that it is His good and gracious will to do so and that the forgiveness of sins that always comes to the faithful through the Lord's Supper will be what we truly need. Indeed, such an end, as all those that God gives, will be a blessing. But we should not shirk our duty to the 5th commandment in all of this or engage in extra-Biblical fantasy that the Lord never delivers crosses through the means of grace. The Lord never hurts or harms His children in any place or time and certainly He never harms them in the Lord's Supper, but the Lord does call His people home and allow them to suffer trials on this side of glory. We do not refuse medical care because the Lord provides and we should not ignore the dangers of plague if it is visited upon us. Again: extraordinary and temporary measures may be necessary. Meanwhile, like many before who have not only been threatened by plagues, but have actually suffered them, we can, and should, pray. For the prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

St. Michael's Liturgical Conference

Materials from the 2014 St. Michael's Liturgical Conference at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church of Detroit are being posted at Zion's website.  A number of our Gottesdienst editors were involved in the conference in a variety of ways: Fr. Mark Braden hosted and presided, Fr. David Petersen preached for the St. Michaelmas, Fr. Burnell Eckardt presented a sectional paper, the undersigned presented a paper on the pastoral care of catechumens and communicants, and all of the above participated in a panel discussion on the topic of Confirmation and First Communion.  Other presenters included Fr. Joel Baseley of Dearborn, Michigan, and Fr. Daniel Reuning of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Who Cut the Cheese?


By Larry Beane

This is a video released by Pastor Mark Junkans (LCMS) who serves a call at Lutheran Inter-City Coalition in Houston, Texas (Texas District).

Pr. Junkans uses the word "communion" - but it sounds more like a house party to me.  Although I would prefer meat hors d'oeuvres or cocktail weenies, since I don't eat bread (Holy Communion excepted) - I would never attempt to bind consciences regarding the proper finger foods to go with Lutheran beverages.  To each his own!  Though (and I realize I am on shaky 8th Commandment and Matthew 18 ground here), I do think some research is in order to determine the propriety of omitting cheese in such contexts.  Is this an adiaphoron?  That question is certainly above my pay grade.

Passing around a bottle sounds like a great time (not that Lutheran pastors know anything about that...) - and is certainly of the order of First Article gifts.  But I don't know if Pr. Junkans is trying to say this communion is a simply bunch of parishioners quaffing at a cocktail party, or rather if this is supposed to be the Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Eucharist, the Mass, the body and blood of Christ?

At any rate, what about the cheese?  Can we at least have consensus on that?

Maybe Pr. Junkans will clarify the matter.  Maybe the Texas District President could help.  I would be interested to know what President Harrison thinks, not to mention President Rast, as Pr. Junkans is a graduate of Fort Wayne's DELTO program.  Reverend Presidents, we need direction on this caseous casuistry matter!  Silence is not an option!

I am not being critical of Pr. Junkans.  I know the rules of the synod.  I'm not an ecclesiastical supervisor.  Nor am I going to invest the time and money to try to meet my brother face to face to confront him about omitting cheese at an otherwise perfectly good cocktail party - as scandalous a matter as that might be - especially to our brethren in Wisconsin.  Love covers a multitude of Sbrinz.

But I would like to know what those charged with ecclesiastical supervision do have to say about this.  I mean, if we can't agree on something so basic, what does it mean to walk together?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Idolatry Is Boring

From Peter Leithart's commentary on 1 Kings 15–16:
Once Jeroboam I sets the pattern of rebellion and resistance to the prophets, Israel descends into turmoil, and the turmoil is depicted literarily in the acceleration of the narrative. . . . As a result, 1 Kings 15-16 is a school child's nightmare, the kind of chronicle that evokes lifelong loathing of history.  A king rises, a king reigns, a king sins, a king dies. . . . Meaningless and confusing dates for indistinguishable kings, all told in a colorless and repetitive prose.  The setting and events are themselves repetitive and boring. . . . Rise, reign, sin, die.  War and sin, sin and war. . . . 
[T]his is precisely the author's point: idolatry is boring.  Idolatry produces nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing fresh, nothing adventurous.  Jeraboam pretends to take a walk on the wild side, pretends to be doing something slick and edgy.  His wildness is not just tame.  It is somnolescent and acts as a soporific for the northern kingdom.  Rehoboam permits high places in Judah, but that just leads to drudgery of the same.  Solomon's reign, by contrast, is full of excitement: political intrigue to secure the throne, clever sleuthing to determine which prostitute is telling the truth, a continuous party in Israel, adventurous endeavors on the high seas, a court visit from the exotic queen of Sheba.  When prophets show up, the world suddenly opens up even wider: hands wither and heal, altars are split, lions leap into the text and onto a prophet but do not eat the donkey, jars of oil never empty, dead children are raised, bears come crashing out of the woods to slaughter mocking young men, and dead bodies thrown into the wrong grave come catapulting out again.  The moon turns to blood, the sun is black as sackcloth, stars fall from the sky; dreams, signs, visions; blood, fire, and vapor of smoke.
Idols are lifeless and therefore cannot impart life.  Lifeless idols only make for lifeless people.  When the initial titillation has passed, idolatry quickly yields to dryness and death.  The signs of this spiritual exhaustion are everywhere in twenty-first-century culture, which has become a culture of "whatever" -- not only the whatever of "anything goes," but the whatever of "and who cares anyway?"  This is the end result of a culture that has been built on idols of success, money, pleasure, self-indulgence, sex.  Such a culture becomes slothful, thoroughly infused with what the Christian tradition calls acedia.
Traditionally, sloth is seen as an enemy of faith and hope.  The Latin word acedia ("lack of concern, lack of care") is used to describe these dimensions of sloth. . . . [A]cedia or sloth can coexist with frantic activity. . . . Our culture is a frenetic 24/7 culture precisely as a way of masking the emptiness of it all. . . .
This is the story of Israel and the story of humanity.  Adam thinks that seizing the fruit of the tree of knowledge will enrich his life with wisdom; it does not, but instead condemns him to an endless round of sweat and sadness. . . . Yahweh's word is the main participant in the battles of history, and it is Yahweh's (s)word that cuts into the boring round of idolatry and sin to make things new.
HT: Fr. Scott Adle

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Tale of Two Conferences

By Larry Beane

The LCMS is quite a diverse church body when it comes to things like conferences.

By way of example, here are descriptions of two upcoming conferences that will be happening shortly, less than one month apart, both of which will include speakers and worship services.

The first example is one of the official district conferences to be held this month (September).

Three of the four main scheduled speakers are pastors.  One of the three is a Lutheran, and his presentation is first.  His topic will be: "Toward Effective Ministry in Transitional Times" and is described as follows:

"Living and serving in God's grace in these changing times involves balance, clarity of purpose and values as well as personal and organizational health.  This time will be interactive, informative, and hopefully a time of introducing you to introspection and possible life ministry changes during this conference."

The two remaining ordained speakers come from outside the Lutheran tradition.  The first is a senior pastor of a Baptist congregation in Virginia.  He is the author of Bod4God: Four Keys to Weight Loss and Get off the Couch.  He is also the creator of the Losing to Live Weight Loss Competition....  The media has labeled him 'The Anti-Fat Pastor.'"  One has to wonder if he'll be attending the "Taco/Nacho/Chicken Wing Buffet (enough to call it dinner)" that includes "free beer, margaritas and sangria/wine."

Next up will be a pastor representing Cornerstone Fellowship, who is going to speak on "rediscovering a New Small Church filled with hope, passion, and innovative spark of the Holy Spirit."

The "opening worship" is not described other than that it will be held at a local parish, while the "closing worship" will be held at the resort where the conference will take place.

***

Less than a month later, another conference will take place, not a district function, but rather an annual congregational event.

The keynote speaker will be a Lutheran seminary professor with degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham.  He is the "author of volumes 12 (Lord's Supper) and 13 (Eschatology) of the series Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics.  His topic will be "The Blessed Sacrament in the Theology of Wilhelm Loehe."  There will also be a discussion on "the rubrics and significance of the Mass from the Preface to the Nunc Dimittis."

Like the other conference, there will be food, including a banquet featuring "brats and beer" and an "after the party party" at the pastor's home.

This conference will likewise include worship services, and will open with "choral vespers" and will include "mass" on the next day, as well as a "low mass" and "vespers" on the final day of the conference - all held in the sanctuary of the parish.

If it is true that diversity is our strength, the LCMS must be one of the mightiest church bodies on the planet.